Friday, March 5, 2010

Closing up shop

This blog will go dark for good effective immediately: I have accepted a job covering the Red Sox for the Providence Journal and will start March 15.

Thanks to those of you who ever made a visit or left a comment or voted in a poll. Thanks in particular to those who have been regular readers over the last 18 months or so. It's been a blast -- and I hope you'll keep reading once I get started at the Journal. Everything I've been doing here independently, I'm going to try to carry over in my new job.

I'll have a new email address once I get started. In the meantime, you can always get in touch with me with criticism, praise or just to talk Red Sox at
Thanks. See you soon.

(By request: My new blog will be here.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A big year for Junichi Tazawa

Junichi Tazawa, who pitched a scoreless inning today in his first spring training appearance, almost certainly is destined for Triple-A Pawtucket when the Red Sox head north. Tazawa got his first taste of the major leagues last season, compiling a 7.46 ERA in six appearances and, most memorably, surrendering a walk-off home run to Alex Rodriguez in the 14th inning of an epic game in early August.

Everything that happened last season was about gaining experience -- and every pitch thrown in the major leagues was a bonus.

"I don't know if I would have sat here and said, 'We'll see him pitching in the big leagues,'" Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Helping our ballclub, that was a lot to ask last year."

Here's the only problem: Tazawa isn't 20 years old. He's not 21, either. He turned 23 midway through last season, and that's the age at which many young pitchers start to blossom. There were 25 players who threw at least as many major-league innings as he did at the age of 22 or younger. Eight of those pitchers, including emerging stars Brett Anderson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Holland and Rick Porcello, threw more than 100 major-league innings.

Other names on the list include Neftali Feliz, Brian Matusz, Jon Niese and Chris Tillman, all pitchers expected to make a significant impact on their respective teams this season at the age of 22 or 23. Heck, Tazawa is three months older than Michael Bowden, the longtime prospect on whom it seems many are ready to give up.

Tazawa will turn 24 in mid-June, and that means the clock is starting to tick a little bit. Prospects who haven't made an impact in the major leagues by the time they're 25 tend not to be considered prospects anymore. Josh Beckett was 23 when he struck out 150 hitters for the first time. Jon Lester was 23 when he won a World Series clincher. John Lackey was, too.

Tazawa, of course, doesn't have the same type of ceiling as Beckett, Lackey or Lester. But even if you look at him as a back-of-the-rotation swingman in the mold of Justin Masterson, well, Masterson was pitching key innings in the postseason at 23 and taking the place of Tim Wakefield in the starting rotation at 24.

The righty remains an intriguing possibility for the Red Sox either as a starter or a reliever. He'll open the season at Triple-A Pawtucket and will have a chance to keep piling up innings and to keep working on his pitches. He'll certainly be in the mix should the Red Sox run into any depth issues with their pitching staff -- but it'll take either a significant injury or a significant step forward in his development for him to make a significant impact at the major-league level.

Like Bowden, if he's going to deliver on his big promise, his window isn't going to stay open forever.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Casey Fien will be in the mix

(Or, you know, not: Fien was claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays three days after the Red Sox claimed him.)

When the Red Sox claimed righty Casey Fien off waivers on Monday and added him to their 40-man roster, the first number that seemed to jump out was the 7.94 ERA he compiled in his first stint in the major leagues -- an ERA compiled in just 11 1/3 innings of work.

The rest of his numbers look terrific.

Fien made nine appearances with the Detroit Tigers last season, including three outings in mop-up duty in which he gave up at least two earned runs. He struck out nine and walked six. He didn't pitch much at all in high-leverage situations.

Still, though: He only pitched 11 1/3 innings. There's no way to make any type of decision on a player based on 11 1/3 innings.

(The same goes for Michael Bowden, the former top prospect who seems thrown by the wayside because he had a bad relief appearance in New York and a bad start against Toronto three days later. If he was a prospect before last season, a handful of rough outings in less-than-ideal situations doesn't change anything.)

Check out Fien's minor-league numbers:

Single-A (103 1/3 IP): 2.95 ERA, 1.080 WHIP, 6.33 K/BB ratio
Double-A (45 2/3 IP): 2.96 ERA, 1.095 WHIP, 3.5 K/BB ratio
Triple-A (73 IP): 3.21 ERA, 1.151 WHIP, 4.37 K/BB ratio

Any guesses how many Red Sox relievers had a K/BB ratio of better than 3.5 last season? Good guess: None of them.

For the sake of comparison, in the final full season Daniel Bard pitched in the minor leagues, he compiled a K/BB ratio of 3.57 in almost 80 innings split between Single-A and Double-A. That's well under the 4.40 ratio Fien compiled in almost a full season at Triple-A Toledo last season.

The righty has impressed everywhere he's pitched. He looked particularly good last season against righthanded pitching, naturally, limiting opposing hitters to a .212 batting average and compiling a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.2.

Baseball America did not rank Fien among its top 10 prospects -- not surprising given that middle relievers don't tend to have much upside and thus not much value in the prospect universe. For the Red Sox, though, a middle reliever with command could be a tremendous asset. Fien likely will start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket but will be in the mix for a promotion and a real crack at the major leagues should a job open up in the bullpen at Fenway Park.

Kalish looks more ready than Reddick

Mike Cameron, as a Red Sox fanbase prone to panic already is aware, will sit out the team's doubleheader on Wednesday against Boston College and Northeastern. Cameron tweaked his groin on Sunday and is going to take things easy for a few days.

That's the adventure that comes with counting on a 37-year-old center fielder. Good health isn't exactly a guarantee.

(This is why the Red Sox were reluctant to commit $15 million a year for four or five years to Jason Bay, who will turn 36 years old in his final season with the Mets should his $17 million option vest. That's another discussion for another time.)

This tweak might be minor, but another injury might not be so minor. There just aren't many outfielders at Cameron's age who can play every day. Only five outfielders last season played more than 140 games at the age of 35 or older:
* Cameron, age 36
* Bobby Abreu, age 35
* Johnny Damon, age 35
* Jermaine Dye, age 35
* Ichiro Suzuki, age 35
* Randy Winn, age 35

Dye is still looking for a job. Damon had to wait until after Valentine's Day to land a job of his own. Winn will be a part-time outfielder with the Yankees. Older outfielders, especially in an era without the fountains of youth the previous era enjoyed, aren't particularly reliable.

Should Cameron go down, the Red Sox have a capable backup in Jeremy Hermida, a corner outfielder who would push Jacoby Ellsbury back to center field. But the Red Sox all of a sudden would be very thin in the outfield, and it might become necessary to call upon almost-ready-for-prime-time prospects Ryan Kalish and/or Josh Reddick, who both will start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

How might they fare?

There are ways to project their performance. One such measure is called "Major League Equivalents," a device invented by Bill James in the mid-1980s that can approximate, to a certain degree, what a player might do in the major leagues.

Here's that approximation for Kalish and Reddick:

(MLEs calculated by

Ryan Kalish
Single-A (127 plate appearances): .306/.435/.514
Double-A (419 plate appearances): .263/.336/.772
MLE: .216/.270/.337

Josh Reddick
Double-A (274 plate appearances): .273/.349/.522
Triple-A (77 plate appearances): .127/.190/.183
MLE: .111/.165/.167

Keep in mind that the MLEs don't factor in year-to-year improvement. In other words, while Reddick might have been expected to OPS under .400 if he'd played last season in the major leagues, he wouldn't be expected to do so if he plays this season in the major leagues. Consider the final MLE of Dustin Pedroia before he made the leap to the major leagues:

2006 in Triple-A: .294/.385/.454
2006 MLE: .243/.317/.355
2007 in majors: .317/.380/.442

Pedroia came far closer to his actual Triple-A numbers from the previous season than to his major-league equivalent -- in large part because he'd had almost 493 extra plate appearances at Triple-A Pawtucket and almost 100 more in the major leagues to hone his swing.

But the above numbers still do tell you something. What's most interesting is that Kalish -- who hasn't yet played a game at Triple-A -- had better major-league equivalent numbers than Reddick. His advanced plate discipline has quite a bit to do with that. Reddick walked just 35 times in almost 350 plate appearances while Kalish walked 67 times in under 550 plate appearances.

Reddick got a handful of at-bats at Pawtucket last season as well as in the major leagues. He's on the 40-man roster, too. Kalish hasn't yet climbed that rung of the ladder. Should one or both be needed, though, the above MLE numbers indicate that Kalish might be closer to ready than Reddick is.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Waiting for Casey Kelly

Red Sox fans have heard plenty about the talents of Casey Kelly in the last year or so, and this spring has been no different. Stories already abound about the maturity and poise the 20-year-old has shown in his first major-league camp.

Fans almost certainly are wondering when they'll see Kelly make his debut at Fenway Park. With the much-ballyhooed prospect probably destined to start at Double-A Portland this spring, a September call-up this season and a major-league job sometime in 2011 doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. Even the experts at Baseball America and have him ticketed for a mid-2011 arrival in the major leagues.

"A future frontline starter, he's ticketed for Double-A and may not need more than another year in the minors," BA's Jim Callis wrote.

Is that a fair expectation? Just for fun, let's look at the paths traveled by the five best young pitchers in the American League, the type of pitchers the Red Sox would be giddy to compare Kelly one day to:

Zack Greinke (debut at age 20)
Single-A: 16 starts
Double-A: 26 starts
Triple-A: 6 starts
Total: 48 starts, 281 innings

This includes an extra stint in the minor leagues after he'd made more than 50 major-league starts thanks to a social anxiety disorder that cost him most of the 2006 season.

Felix Hernandez (debut at age 19)
Single-A: 24 starts
Double-A: 10 starts
Triple-A: 14 starts
Total: 48 starts, 306 1/3 innings

Jon Lester (debut at age 22)
Single-A: 44 starts
Double-A: 27 starts
Triple-A: 25 starts
Total: 96 starts, 482 innings

This includes, of course, an extra season spent working his way back from cancer treatments, a season that included stops at all three levels.

CC Sabathia (debut at age 20)
Single-A: 26 starts
Double-A: 17 starts
Triple-A: 0 starts
Total: 43 starts, 214 2/3 innings

Justin Verlander (debut at age 22)
Single-A: 13 starts
Double-A: 7 starts
Triple-A: 0 starts
Total: 20 starts, 118 2/3 innings

That does not include the three season Verlander pitched in college, making 46 starts and throwing 335 2/3 innings for Old Dominion. Those three seasons skew his numbers a little bit. Had Kelly gone to Tennessee and pitched there, he'd have come out three years from now in position to move much more quickly through the minor leagues -- but it also would be three years from now.

The other four pitchers all made at least 40 minor-league starts and compiled somewhere between 200 and 400 innings in their initial ascent to the major leagues.

Here's what Kelly has under his belt:

Casey Kelly (just turned 20)
Single-A: 17 starts, 95 innings pitched
Total: 17 starts, 95 innings pitched

That's it.

Because of Kelly's indecision at the onset of his professional career, he's a little bit behind where Greinke and Lester -- both, like Kelly, drafted out of high school -- were at the same age. Greinke made five starts the same year he was drafted and 23 starts the year after that. Lester made one start the same year he was drafted and 21 starts the season after that.

Kelly, of course, played shortstop the same year he was drafted and only spent half of last season pitching rather than playing in the field.

Kelly will start this season at Double-A Portland with an eye on making between 20 and 25 starts and compiling somewhere around 125 innings pitched. He might -- might -- get a call-up in September to expose him to the major leagues, but he also might have hit his innings limit by then and find himself shut down for the season.

(It wouldn't be the first time a top pitching prospect has been shut down to preserve his health.)

He then likely would start the 2011 season at Triple-A Pawtucket and make another 15 or 20 starts, minimum, before the Red Sox started to consider him for a role on the major-league roster. Even then, he'd have to crack a rotation that still will include Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and maybe even Josh Beckett, depending on how things shake out.

It's going to be tough to be patient with Kelly. Being patient, though, is going to be the best way to get the best out of him.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Victor or Dustin?

Should the Red Sox decide to move Dustin Pedroia out of his customary No. 2 spot to make room for Marco Scutaro, they'll have to make a decision: Either Victor Martinez or Dustin Pedroia will have to hit in the No. 3 spot with the other bumping down to No. 5. Reports out of Fort Myers had Pedroia ready and willing to hit fifth, but that should be far from a foregone conclusion.

A team typically should slot its best hitter in the No. 3 spot in its batting order. Who's the best hitter the Red Sox have?

Well, actually, that's a trick question. Kevin Youkilis is the best hitter in the Red Sox lineup -- and one of the best hitters in the American League. But because Youkilis hits for more power than either Martinez or Pedroia, he's a natural fit in the No. 4 spot in the batting order.

J.D. Drew, too, ought to be a candidate to hit in the No. 3 spot. He was one of just six players in the American League last season -- Youkilis, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Alex Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist were the others -- to compile an on-base percentage of better than .390 and a slugging percentage of better than .500. On a rate basis, he's one of the elite hitters in the American League.

But if the Red Sox didn't hit Drew in the No. 3 spot after David Ortiz was bumped down to the bottom half of the lineup -- that duty fell to Youkilis, with Bay hitting cleanup -- they're probably not going to do so this season.

(Hitting Drew in the No. 3 spot would be the best way for Theo Epstein and Terry Francona to shut up all the "Drew sucks because he hits eighth!" voices, but it's a credit to both that shutting up their detractors is not among their priorities.)

That leaves Martinez and Pedroia -- and that means it's time for a side-by-side comparison:

2009 slash lines
Martinez: .303/.381/.480 (.861 OPS)
Pedroia: .296/.371/.447 (.819 OPS)

Career slash lines
Martinez: .299/.372/.465 (.837 OPS)
Pedroia: .307/.370/.455 (.825 OPS)

Walk rate
Martinez: 11.2 percent
Pedroia: 10.4 percent

Isolated power (ISO)
Martinez: .177
Pedroia: .152

Line-drive rate
Martinez: 21 percent
Pedroia: 18 percent

What does this tell you?

Well, Martinez has better numbers than Pedroia across the board -- not by much of a margin, but, still, better numbers across the board. Martinez probably should hit in the No. 3 hole in the Red Sox lineup -- and this might mean that Pedroia still might be the best fit at No. 2, since dropping him all the way down to No. 5 might be a waste of his on-base skills.

But it's fascinating that this Red Sox team, one whose lineup has caused so much consternation, has options like this.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Red Sox bullpen, best in baseball?

The Red Sox finished last season with a bullpen ERA of 3.80, second-best in the American League behind the Oakland Athletics' 3.54 and well below the American League average of 4.17. The same group returns intact this season and will be expected to put up similar numbers.

It's fair to wonder, though, if it will.

The Red Sox bullpen looked like one of the best in baseball last season mostly because its pitchers stranded 71 percent of inherited runners last season, second-best in the American League. Only the Yankees (73 percent) were better. The American League average was 66 percent.

That number might not be sustainable. While the American League average has held steady around 66 percent over the last few seasons, the Red Sox strand percentage has bounced around quite a bit:

2009: 71 percent
2008: 68 percent
2007: 77 percent
2006: 62 percent
2005: 61 percent
2004: 66 percent

The smart money has the Red Sox bullpen's strand rate regressing to the mean this season.

"When we had guys on base and guys in scoring position, we actually pitched really well last year," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told WEEI this morning. "That’s the type of thing that you can’t really count on year after year."

This is where Epstein's idea of "clutch pitching" comes into play. Stranding inherited runners often can be a byproduct of luck -- or, as Epstein made clear earlier this offseason, lousy defense. One reason Epstein made it a point to upgrade his defense was the fact that he couldn't realistically expect his relivers to pitch as "clutch" as they had last season.

ERA can be a bad way to evaluate relief pitchers because so many outside factors contribute. If a reliever enters a game with a runner on second and promptly gives up an RBI single, that run isn't charged to his record. If a reliever leaves a game with the bases loaded but the next pitcher strikes out the side, no runs are charged to his record.

As elite as the Red Sox bullpen seemed to be last season, its individual pitchers didn't exactly stand out in the statistical categories that have nothing to do with inherited runners:

Strikeout-to-walk ratio (min. 45 IP)
16. Jonathan Papelbon, 3.17
20. Daniel Bard, 2.86
23. Hideki Okajima, 2.52
48. Ramon Ramirez, 1.63
65. Manny Delcarmen, 1.29

(In case you're wondering, there were 67 relievers who qualified.)

Walks and hits per inning pitched
19. Jonathan Papelbon, 1.147
27. Hideki Okajima, 1.262
30. Daniel Bard, 1.277
36. Ramon Ramirez, 1.335
60. Manny Delcarmen, 1.642

Opponents' on-base plus slugging (OPS)
11. Jonathan Papelbon, .600
29. Daniel Bard, .690
34. Hideki Okajima, .704
36. Ramon Ramirez, .711
56. Manny Delcarmen, .796

Other than Papelbon -- and this is the same Papelbon, don't forget, who allowed more baserunners than usual -- the Red Sox bullpen was a middle-of-the-pack team in all three of the above categories. Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez both finished the season in the bottom half of the American League in WHIP and opponents' OPS, and not one Red Sox reliever finished in the top 10 in any of the above categories.

The revamped Red Sox defense, it seems, wasn't just about the starting pitchers. The revamped Red Sox defense might be a big help to the bullpen, too.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lowell leaves Red Sox thin up the middle's Sean McAdam reported this week that Mike Lowell likely will open the season with the Red Sox and likely will not be traded during spring training. It makes sense: With so many free agents signing for bargain-basement prices, there's no need for a team to part with prospects for a question mark like Lowell. If Russell Branyan had to settle for a $2 million deal, why would another team assume anything but a fraction of the money owed Lowell?

Should Lowell stick around, the Red Sox bench would seem to be set in stone before exhibition games even begin. Jason Varitek will be the backup catcher. Lowell will back up the two infield corners. Jeremy Hermida will back up the two outfield corners. Bill Hall will back up everywhere else.

But that leaves the Red Sox awfully thin in the middle infield. Hall was acquired as a jack-of-all-trades utility guy. Here's the problem: He last played shortstop in the major leagues four years ago, and he last saw even semi-regular playing time at second base five years ago. He's spent the last three seasons almost exclusively as a third baseman and as an outfielder.

This leaves Hall as an adequate in-game replacement for Dustin Pedroia or Marco Scutaro in the event of a fluke injury like a foul ball off the shin. At the other end of the spectrum, should either Pedroia or Scutaro suffer any sort of long-term injury, Tug Hulett or Jed Lowrie could be called up from Triple-A Pawtucket and jump into the starting lineup.

It's in the middle that things start to get hazy. What happens if Pedroia sprains an ankle and is sidelined for four games? What happens if Scutaro gets the flu and is laid up for a week?

Should either middle infielder suffer an injury that's not quite severe enough to land him on the 15-day disabled list -- and the Red Sox aren't going to deactivate Pedroia for 15 days if he's expected to be back in 10 -- Hall would have to play second base or shortstop every day for a week. He hasn't done that since 2006.

For a team banking its fortune on being able to catch the ball, being so thin at two key defensive positions seems unnecessarily precarious.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Terry Francona doesn't use long relievers

Boof Bonser arrived in Fort Myers -- well, actually, he never really left Fort Myers -- with an eye on breaking into a Red Sox bullpen with space for just an arm like his. He's been a starting pitcher throughout his career but almost certainly won't be a starting pitcher with the Red Sox unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

His background as a starting pitcher, though, makes him a natural fit as a Justin Masterson-esque long reliever, a guy who can eat up three or four innings out of the bullpen in a lopsided game to preserve the bullpen for another day. The Red Sox even will stretch him out as a starter this spring so they'll have the option of using him for multiple innings once the season begins.

Here's the only problem: Terry Francona doesn't use long relievers.

Since his arrival in 2004, Francona has been less and less inclined to use relief pitchers for more than two innings at a time. When Brad Penny got shelled by the Cleveland Indians in late April, sent to the showers in the third inning, Francona used five relief pitchers to finish the game. Only Hunter Jones pitched more than one inning of relief, and even Jones was done after the fifth inning.

Granted, the Red Sox will tend to use long relievers less often because their pitchers tend to pitch deeper into games. A day Josh Beckett starts doesn't tend to be a day any relief pitcher needs to pitch more than one inning. But even comparing the Red Sox to the Yankees, another team that doesn't often need pitchers to do mop-up work, reveals a tendency to spread the workload out:

(For the sake of simplicity, a "long relief appearance" will be defined as a relief appearance lasting three innings or more. All statistics from's Play Index tool.)

Average American League team: 16.5
Yankees long relief appearances: 16
Red Sox long relief appearances: 6

Average American League team: 14.1
Red Sox long relief appearances: 9
Yankees long relief appearances: 9

Average American League team: 15.1
Yankees long relief appearances: 13
Red Sox long relief appearances: 8

Average American League team: 14.4
Yankees long relief appearances: 10
Red Sox long relief appearances: 3

Yankees long relief appearances: 13
Average American League team: 11.8
Red Sox long relief appearances: 3

Yankees long relief appearances: 19
Average American League team: 12.7
Red Sox long relief appearances: 5

In other words, Francona has asked a relief pitcher to go three or more innings less often in the last three years combined (11) than the average American League team did last season alone (12.7).

Even when he has a starting pitcher who doesn't eat up innings -- and Red Sox starters have failed to get out of the fifth inning at least 20 times in each of the last four seasons -- Francona has shown a tendency to use his relief pitchers in short stints rather than ask one or two guys to finish out the game.

Francona asked his relievers to get more than three outs in an appearance 162 times in 2005. That even was with a team whose starting pitchers averaged 6.2 innings per start, better than its starters have fared in any season since. A year later, that number had tumbled all the way down to 100. It hasn't been back above 125 yet.

Masterson, the quintessential long reliever, made only two relief appearances last season of three innings or longer:
* He relieved the injured Daisuke Matsuzaka in Oakland just a couple of weeks removed from spring training, pitching four full innings;
* He relieved Matsuzaka again in the starter's first game back from the disabled list, pitching three full innings.

That's it. Masterson made 25 relief appearances for the Red Sox before he was traded for Victor Martinez. Only two of those lasted three innings or more, and both of those were directly related to the health of Matsuzaka. Everything else was in short stints.

When a line drive knocked Jon Lester out of a game at Yankee Stadium in late September, Hunter Jones and Michael Bowden only pitched a combined 3 1/3 innings of relief before giving way to Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez. Bowden, don't forget, had spent the entire season as a starting pitcher -- but Francona only asked him to pitch 2 1/3 innings before he called for Delcarmen.

This isn't meant as a criticism. Francona certainly has earned the benefit of the doubt in his handling of his bullpen.

This simply is meant as a little perspective on what Bonser realistically is going to bring to the table for the Red Sox. The former Minnesota starter will have to earn a roster spot based on what he can do in one- or two-inning stints. His ability to eat up innings out of the bullpen might be a useful skill -- but it's not going to be put to much use in Boston.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Someone needs to talk to Tim Wakefield

Tim Wakefield again has reiterated his unwavering belief that he would open the starting rotation in the Red Sox rotation.

“I plan to be one of the five starters," he told reporters in Fort Myers on Friday. "As long as I'm healthy during spring training and there are no setbacks, when we start the season, I think I’ll be one of the five. We talked about that. I think Tito (Francona) and Theo (Epstein) and John (Farrell) all think we’re a better team with me in the rotation. I eat up innings, I do whatever it takes to help us win, and I think we agreed on that aspect."

There are three possibilities here:
1. Tito and Theo and John really do believe the Red Sox are a better team with Wakefield in the rotation than with Clay Buchholz or Daisuke Matsuzaka.
2. Tito and Theo and John are not being honest with Wakefield.
3. Tito and Theo and John have been honest with Wakefield but Wakefield chooses to make declarations with no basis in reality.

No matter how you slice it, that's not good for the team.

First things first: The Red Sox are not a better team with Wakefield in the rotation than with Buchholz or Matsuzaka. Both Buchholz and Matsuzaka have shown flashes of top-of-the-rotation potential -- especially Buchholz, who had a 2.37 ERA and a sub-.600 OPS against during a 10-start stretch in August and September.

Matsuzaka might be maddening to watch. Matsuzaka might not have lived up to expectations. The Red Sox have him under contract for three more seasons, though, and his upside far exceeds that of Wakefield. If he's healthy -- and all indications are that he is going to be healthy -- he's going to be the No. 5 starter in the rotation.

Wakefield, meanwhile, has posted an ERA over 4.50 in three of his last four seasons and hasn't had even a decent second half since 2005. He's a perfectly serviceable pitcher for a team that needs to fill out its rotation, but he's not as good as Buchholz and not appreciably better than Matsuzaka. There's no way around it: The Red Sox rotation would not be better if he replaced either Buchholz or Matsuzaka.

The only reason for the Red Sox to keep Wakefield around, it seems, is as insurance -- but he's not talking like anyone has made that clear to him. He believes he has much claim on a spot in the rotation as Josh Beckett, John Lackey or Jon Lester. One can't help but imagine problems surfacing near Opening Day if and when the 43-year-old knuckleballer finds himself on the outs.

Epstein and Francona need to have a conversation with Wakefield -- and soon. Someone needs to tell him that he's pitching for a rotation spot right now belonging to Buchholz or Matsuzaka, and not the other way around.

(There is a slim possibility that Wakefield might be correct and that one of the five rotation spots does belong to him, be it at the expense of Buchholz or Matsuzaka. Should that be the case, well, that's another discussion entirely.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Jed Lowrie might need more time

Other than the back end of the bullpen, one could take a pretty accurate crack at what the Red Sox roster will look like on Opening Day. Jason Varitek will be the backup catcher. Mike Lowell likely will be on the disabled list or traded away. Bill Hall and Jeremy Hermida will have spots on the bench.

One of the only toss-ups is in the infield, where either Tug Hulett or Jed Lowrie likely will break camp as the utility infielder who can spell Adrian Beltre, Dustin Pedroia and Marco Scutaro once every couple of weeks apiece.

Hulett got to the plate 19 times with the Kansas City Royals last season but otherwise played most of the season at Triple-A Omaha, playing mostly second base but also a little shortstop, third base and right field. He hit .291 and OBP'ed .384 with 11 home runs and 27 doubles in just shy of 442 plate appearances.

But this doesn't have much to do with Hulett. That has to do with Lowrie and whether the Red Sox believe he could benefit more from regular playing time at Triple-A Pawtucket or whether he's ready now to take over a full-time job should something happen to Beltre, Pedroia or Scutaro.

A wrist injury limited Lowrie to a little over 175 plate appearances combined between the major leagues and minor leagues last season -- and a good chunk of those were rehab plate appearances used less for development than for strength-building. Here's how things break down for Lowrie in the upper levels of the minor leagues:

Double-A: 413 plate appearances
Triple-A: 494 plate appearances

Compare that to another doubles-hitting middle infielder who recently came up through the Red Sox system:

Double-A: 298 plate appearances
Triple-A: 733 plate appearances

In all, Dustin Pedroia played a season and a half at Triple-A Pawtucket before the Red Sox summoned him to the major leagues. He hasn't been back.

Lowrie, on the other hand, made a midseason jump to Triple-A in 2007 and then another midseason jump to the major leagues a year later, finishing with about 400 plate appearances in the process. Even then, though, he was fighting a wrist injury that wasn't resolved until his surgery at the end of April. He hasn't swung a bat without having to think about his wrist for almost two full seasons.

The guess here is that the Red Sox will have him play at least half a season at Triple-A Pawtucket to make up for lost time. He won't turn 26 years old until mid-April, but he's coming off a year in which he didn't get into any sort of rhythm. A full-time bench job this season -- and the irregular playing time that comes with it -- could stunt his development even more.

Three more months in Pawtucket might give him the at-bats he needs to be able to contribute if and when he's called upon.

Update: “You can look at this season as a rebound season, but I’m looking to have a long career. I’m not looking to just have one season,” Lowrie told reporters in Fort Myers. “Every year that I come into camp, I want to be the starting shortstop. I don’t look at it as just this year, all or nothing. I look at it as, I want to build a career. That’s why I want to make sure that I fix this and I get this right. I’m not looking at it from just a this-year standpoint.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A logjam at the top of the order

It's almost a foregone conclusion that Marco Scutaro will hit ninth in the Red Sox lineup to create a "second leadoff hitter" effect. By hitting behind Adrian Beltre and his presumably low on-base percentage, Scutaro would become something of a table-setter for Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia as they, in turn, set the table for Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis.

(As an aside: There are those who expect Ellsbury to steal 75 or 80 bases this season. Consider, though, how often Nick Green or Alex Gonzalez got on base in front of him last season -- and compare that to how often Scutaro will get on base in front of him this season, taking away some of his opportunities.)

The best way to score runs -- short of hitting home runs, of course -- is to get guys on base, one after the other. From Scutaro straight through until Youkilis and then even David Ortiz, the Red Sox have a chance to put men on base in rapid succession and, naturally, to drive them in. Consider the CHONE projected on-base percentages for the group:

9. Scutaro, .360
1. Ellsbury, .360
2. Pedroia, .379
3. Martinez, .366
4. Youkilis, .384
5. Ortiz, .355

A natural question arises: Why wait?

Why leave Scutaro at the bottom of the batting order? Why not hit Scutaro up near the top, where his on-base percentage will be well above average even if he regresses, and get him on base as often as possible in front of Martinez and Youkilis?

Ellsbury would still hit at the top of the order. He sees himself as a leadoff hitter. Manager Terry Francona said over and over last year that the Red Sox lineup is at its best when Ellsbury is its leadoff hitter.

But Scutaro is a natural leadoff hitter himself. He hit leadoff in all 144 of his starts with the Blue Jays last season. His ability to get on base and his ability to work counts -- he saw a career-best 4.06 pitches per plate appearance last season -- makes him a better candidate for the top of the lineup than the bottom.

The natural move would be to insert Scutaro between Ellsbury and Pedroia and bump everyone down from there, creating something of a logjam of high on-base percentages at the top. It would, as Francona would say, lengthen the lineup, make it deeper and tougher and more of a challenge for opposing pitchers.

It also would be a little bit unconventional:

Ellsbury, LF
Scutaro, SS
Pedroia, 2B
Youkilis, 1B
Martinez, C
Ortiz, DH
Cameron, CF
Drew, RF
Beltre, 3B

Martinez and Youkilis could flip-flop. There's not a huge difference between them. Youkilis does have slightly better on-base and power numbers, so it makes sense in some ways to hit him ahead of Martinez.

Drew and Ortiz could flip-flop, too, though it makes sense to get the power bat of Ortiz into the middle of the lineup where it can do the most damage if and when it catches fire. Even Drew and Beltre could flip-flop, turning Drew into yet another leadoff hitter in the No. 9 spot, though it would incite of the "J.D. Drew is overrated" camp.

Drew, for what it's worth, could fit into that No. 2 spot ahead of Pedroia just as easily as Scutaro, if not more so. Drew is projected to compile an on-base percentage of .372, a number that would look awfully good in front of Pedroia, Youkilis and Martinez.

That would leave you with this:

Ellsbury, LF
Drew, RF
Pedroia, 2B
Youkilis, 1B
Martinez, C
Ortiz, DH
Cameron, CF
Beltre, 3B
Scutaro, SS

Either way, that's an unconventional lineup.

Pedroia isn't a prototypical No. 3 hitter, though it's worth pointing out he spent a week hitting cleanup two seasons ago. He OPS'ed .819 last season -- which would be above average among No. 3 hitters in the American League (.805). He's not a home run hitter, but his doubles power would be good enough with the speed on the bases in front of him.

The Red Sox have put together a lineup with six or seven hitters who could hit in the top half of the lineup. Leaving both Drew and Scutaro in the bottom third of the order doesn't seem like the best way to score runs.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What if Bard is the one who goes?

Jonathan Papelbon has made no secret during the arbitration process that he wants to get paid what he feels he is worth. Given the propensity of Theo Epstein to let his most expensive players walk -- and given the emergence of youngster Daniel Bard as an option to replace Papelbon -- many believe the Red Sox will make little effort to re-sign Papelbon and instead hand the ball to Bard after the 2011 season.

Many have speculated that the Red Sox will trade Papelbon for prospects even before he hits the open market.

Papelbon, as far as most Red Sox fans are concerned, is a lame duck closer with little chance of sticking around after he's eligible for free agency. Papelbon is going to be too expensive for his own good, or so conventional wisdom has it, and Bard has the type of young, electric arm that could make him the next elite closer in the major leagues.

What if we have it all backwards? What if Bard is the likeliest trade chip? What if Papelbon is going to get his money and is going to emerge from the bullpen to "Shipping Up To Boston" for the next 10 or 12 years?

A reporter in Fort Myers, Fla., asked Papelbon this week what he made of the perception that he was all but gone once he hit free agency.

"I think that’s the perception, that I’m going to go somewhere else, but it’s all a perception," Papelbon said. "Right now, this is the way it’s working out. It’s that simple. It’s one year at a time. It’s working out. Both sides are happy. 'Why would you try to do anything else?' is my way of thinking. Of course I’d love to be with Boston for a long term.

"But this is the way it is right now, and I’m happy going one year at a time. This is the organization I started in. This is the organization that gave me the opportunity to play major league baseball. Of course I’d love to stay here for 15 years. Right now, one year at a time is the way it’s working. I’m happy and everyone else is happy, so why not."

Bard, on the other hand, was asked about the possibility of going back to starting pitching at some point in his career. Starting pitchers, after all, tend to be more valuable than relief pitchers.

"Right now, I'm a reliever," Bard said. "The Red Sox have a lot of starting pitching. As long as I'm with the Red Sox, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be a reliever."

The "As long as I'm with the Red Sox" part of that ought to raise an eyebrow. Bard is a smart guy. He knows what he can do is valuable whether it's as a starter or as a closer. He knows he's more valuable as a starter than as a reliever but isn't going to start any games in Boston. He also has no particular ties to the Red Sox and has no more reason to sign a team-friendly contract than Papelbon does.

Papelbon, despite all appearances, is a smart guy. He knows what he can do is plenty valuable, too. Over the last few seasons, among American League closers, he's in a class with Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera and pretty much no one else. He also knows that he has a pretty good thing going for him in Boston.

Epstein, of course, is a smart guy, too. He knows what Papelbon can do. He knows what Bard can do. He knows Papelbon will hit free agency after the 2011 season. He knows Bard will start becoming eligible for salary arbitration after the 2011 season -- and while middle relievers don't make much in arbitration, Bard's salary would spike after a year or two as the closer.

Bard, in other words, might wind up just as expensive as Papelbon -- and he might be at least as willing to go elsewhere as Papelbon.

Papelbon has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball over the past four seasons. Bard looked great in his first stint in the major leagues. Both know they're talented and that they can make a lot of money playing baseball. Assuming Papelbon is the one who's going to wind up in another uniform might be a little bit premature.

Dustin Pedroia loves the breaking ball

Subtitle: A voyage through FanGraphs' Pitch Value statistics.

Every hitter has his pitches he loves. Every hitter has his pitches he loves a little less. Thanks to FanGraphs' Pitch Value numbers, we can find out a little bit about what pitches each Red Sox hitter loves or loves less.

The measure here is "Runs created per 100 pitches seen." The calculations are complicated but the idea is relatively simple: A single contributes a certain fraction of a run. A double contributes a certain fraction of a run. A strikeout costs a certain fraction of a run.

Against the fastball
1. Kevin Youkilis, 2.56 runs
2. Victor Martinez, 2.42
3. Jason Bay, 1.8
4. J.D. Drew, 1.73
5. Julio Lugo, 1.03

Against the changeup
1. David Ortiz, 1.92 runs
2. Julio Lugo, 1.39
3. Jason Bay, 1.13
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1.94
5. Jason Varitek, 0.29

(You're probably wondering why Julio Lugo looked so bad if he was so good against fastballs and changeups -- or maybe you've already guessed that he was a minus-2.56 against curveballs.)

Against the curveball
1. Dustin Pedroia, 2.56 runs
2. Alex Gonzalez, 2.44
3. Kevin Youkilis, 1.94
4. David Ortiz, 1.35
5. Jason Bay, 0.76

Against the slider
1. Jason Varitek, 2.67 runs
2. Jacoby Ellsbury, 1.56
3. Jason Bay, 1.14
4. Dustin Pedroia, 0.92
5. J.D. Drew, minus-0.03

Pedroia actually ranked ninth in the major leagues last season against breaking balls, compiling a combined 3.48 runs against curveballs and sliders. He might claim he loves the high, inside fastball, but he was most productive last season against breaking balls.

Two seasons ago, Pedroia ranked 11th against breaking balls, compiling 3.67 runs against curveballs and sliders.

According to the new Red Sox Annual, Pedroia swung and missed at just six percent of curves and sliders against righthanded pitchers -- best in the major leagues. He hit .350 against curveballs last season, including .375 against curveballs from righties.

Kevin Youkilis, on the other hand, loves pitches that come in straight and don't break. He ranked 16th in the major leagues last season with a combined 3.5 runs created against fastballs and changeups. Two seasons ago, Youkilis ranked eighth in the major leagues with a combined 4.48 against fastballs and changeups, nestled right between Albert Pujols and Chipper Jones.

His Achilles' heel over the last two seasons has been the slider. He compiled minus-1.42 runs against the slider last season.

All of this is subject to context: Bay is, by reputation, a fastball hitter who has little success against good breaking pitches. Bad breaking pitches still count on the scale -- and Bay pounds bad breaking pitches.

(Want more context? The best fastball among Red Sox pitchers last season, per 100 pitches, belonged to Tim Wakefield. It only was so effective, though, because he threw it as a complement to his mystifying knuckleball.)

Weaknesses still are weaknesses, and strengths still are strengths. If a pitcher is going to try to get Pedroia out with a breaking ball in a big spot next season, it had better be an awfully good one.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Josh Beckett's fluky home-run rate

It's easy to forget now that Josh Beckett looked like a Cy Young candidate as late as mid-August last season. The hard-throwing righty had a 3.10 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.45. His win-loss record was 14-4, for those who care about that sort of thing. He'd thrown three complete games, including a three-hit shutout against Kansas City and a three-hit shutout against Atlanta.

Heck, he'd even hit a home run.

But the longball started to cause problems for him in late August, and his ERA reacted accordingly. By Sept. 2, Beckett had allowed at least two home runs in five straight starts and had seen his ERA jump to 3.87 -- and Jon Lester was the Game 1 started in the ALCS.

Home runs are one of those complicated things pitchers both can and can't control. A pitcher has a degree of control over how hard the ball gets hit, and how hard the ball gets hit has a lot to do with whether it goes over the fence. There's a little bit of luck involved, though, in whether fly balls turn into home runs or whether they end up caught at the warning track.

A look at Beckett's entire season indicates that he probably got a little bit unlucky during his rough patch in August.

(Thanks to FanGraphs' tremendous new splits tool for the data.)

Beckett saw his ground-ball rate stay pretty consistent last season, spiking at 52.2 percent in June but never falling below 46 percent down the stretch. His fly-ball rate wasn't quite so consistent, jumping from 28.3 percent in June to 38.9 percent in August. At the same time, though, his line-drive rate hit a season low in August -- and line-drive rate usually is a better indicator of pitcher success or failure than either of the other two measures.

Even as his fly-ball rate jumped, his home-run rate jumped even higher -- higher than it had in his entire Red Sox career. Check out his HR/FB rates by month last season:

Home runs out of total fly balls
10.0 percent
May: 13.0
June: 3.8
July: 8.1
August: 27.3
September: 8.6

(Cue the outlier music.)

Not once in his Red Sox career has Beckett had a month even close to that bad. Not once in his Red Sox career has Beckett's HR/FB ratio even touched 20. His previous worst came in 2006 when his HR/FB numbers fluctuated between 11.1 and 19.5 percent. More often than not, his HR/FB ratio has been under 10 percent.

In other words, something looks awfully fluky about the rough August that Beckett endured last season -- and that's an encouraging sign for this season.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cameron could benefit from Drew and Ortiz

Some still insist that J.D. Drew and David Ortiz will hit back-to-back in the Red Sox lineup, probably right behind Kevin Youkilis.

From one perspective, it makes sense for them to do so. After Youkilis and Victor Martinez, Drew and Ortiz ought to be the two best hitters in the Red Sox lineup. Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron were signed more for their defense than their bats, and it makes sense that they'd hit in the bottom third of the lineup.

But if Terry Francona does what he normally tries so hard to do -- that is, split up his lefties so as to make opposing managers' jobs more difficult -- he's going to hit one of the two between Drew and Ortiz in a lineup that looks something like this:

Ellsbury, LF
Pedroia, 2B
Martinez, C
Youkilis, 1B
Ortiz, DH
Cameron, CF
Drew, RF
Beltre, 3B
Scutaro, SS

A lineup like that could really benefit Cameron in the late innings.

Look at it this way: The point of inserting a buffer between Ortiz and Drew is to prevent an opposing manager from bringing in a lefty specialist to set down both in order before giving the ball back to a righty. Francona knows that. He only hit Drew and Ortiz back-to-back seven times last season. When Ortiz hit third, Drew hit fifth. When Ortiz hit fifth, Drew hit seventh. When Ortiz hit sixth, Drew hit eighth. Either Jason Bay or Mike Lowell almost always was slotted between Drew and Ortiz in the Red Sox lineup.

When the lineup rolls around to its Ortiz-Cameron-Drew-Beltre segment, an opposing manager will have two choices:
1. Employ a lefty-righty-lefty-righty strategy, thus burning a righthanded relief pitcher just to face Cameron;
2. Use the same lefty to face both Ortiz and Drew, allowing him in the process to face Cameron and maybe even Beltre.

Therein lies the beauty. Ortiz might be neutralized by tough lefties. Drew might even be neutralized by tough lefties -- though not as much as you'd think.

Cameron, though, thrives against lefties.

Consider the center fielder's splits:

vs. RHP: .244/.318/.430 (.748 OPS)
vs. LHP: .271/.420/.534 (.954 OPS)

vs. RHP: .231/.309/.452 (.761 OPS)
vs. LHP: .282/.397/.555 (.951 OPS)

vs. RHP: .245/.330/.435 (.765 OPS)
vs. LHP: .267/.370/.489 (.859 OPS)

Over the last two seasons, Cameron has seen his OPS jump about 200 points when he's facing lefthanded pitching. Over his entire career, he's still seen his OPS jump about 100 points when he's facing lefthanded pitching.

(Beltre has a career split that's not nearly as pronounced, but he too has OPS'ed 200 points higher against lefties than against righties in each of his last two seasons.)

Francona says over and over that he wants to do all he can to make the opposing manager's job difficult. By slotting Cameron between Drew and Ortiz, he's does one of two things:
* He makes the opposing manager burn through extra bullpen arms in the late innings; or
* He makes the opposing manager use a lefty to face a righty who treats lefties like punching bags.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Spring training stats all over the map

Pitchers and catchers report on Thursday. Boston College and Northeastern visit City of Palms Park on March 3. Exhibition games begin in earnest on March 4 against Minnesota in the first bout of the annual Mayor's Cup.

Spring training statistics usually don't mean anything. A 4-for-4 performance for a no-name minor leaguer on a Tuesday afternoon in Clearwater or Port Charlotte usually doesn't mean much. Occasionally, very occasionally, a few big days in a row can be a sign of things to come -- and that's enough to make fans pore through the spring training statistics in hopes of picking up the next player on the rise before he starts rising.

Such was the case last year. At one end of the spectrum:
Jeff Bailey (45 at-bats): .356/.455/.600
Chris Carter (76 at-bats): .355/.380/.658
Nick Green (63 at-bats): .349/.414/.524

None of the three did much at the plate with the Red Sox, though Green started off hot in April and May before his impatience at the plate caught up with him.

At the other end of the spectrum:
Jason Bay (44 at-bats): .227/.364/.545
David Ortiz (40 at-bats): .250/.392/.500
Jason Varitek (51 at-bats): .216/.241/.549
Kevin Youkilis (30 at-bats): .233/.343/.333

Ortiz actually hit worse in April and May than he had in spring training. Varitek actually OBP'ed .348 in April and had hit 10 home runs by May 31 before his numbers went into a tailspin.

Youkilis, for his part, didn't see his batting average drop below .400 until April 30 and didn't see his on-base percentage drop below .500 until after a stint on the disabled list in mid-May.

And then there's:
Lars Anderson (24 at-bats): .208/.321/.208

In far too small of a sample size to make any pronouncements, Anderson nonetheless gave the first indication that he was not about to explode onto the scene as the next elite prospect. He'll be a player whose spring training numbers this season once again will be overanalyzed despite a sample size too small for any actual analysis.

Pitchers' numbers often can be more telling, especially the strikeout and walk numbers that don't depend so much on luck. Among Red Sox pitchers last spring:

Jon Lester (19 2/3 IP): 1.83 ERA, 20 K, 11 BB
Clay Buchholz (25 IP): 2.52 ERA, 19 K, 4 BB
Josh Beckett (27 2/3 IP): 3.25 ERA, 17 K, 5 BB

Buchholz stands out, just as he stood out last spring. His ERA actually was 0.46 at one point before a scuffle at the end of the spring. He then dominated the Triple-A International League until the Red Sox called him up.

On the other hand:

Tim Wakefield (15 IP): 5.40 ERA, 11 K, 8 BB
Manny Delcarmen (13 2/3 IP): 4.61 ERA, 9 K, 6 BB
Ramon Ramirez (12 1/3 IP): 4.38 ERA, 12 K, 3 BB

One could make an argument that the above three pitchers were among the most valuable on the Red Sox staff in April and May. Delcarmen didn't allow his first earned run until May 3. Ramirez didn't allow his first earned run until May 4. Wakefield almost threw a no-hitter in Oakland on April 15 and ended up earning a spot on the American League All-Star team.

All three tailed off later in the season. Their subpar numbers in spring training, though, didn't come close to forecasting pitchers who would throw darts at the start of the season.

The lesson here? There are times when excellent spring training numbers can tell a story, just as they did for Buchholz a season ago. There are times when lousy spring training numbers can be a bad omen, as they were for Anderson a year ago.

Mostly, spring training numbers don't tell much of a story at all. Established players are trying to get into a rhythm. Young players often are trying too hard to impress. Injured players aren't trying to do anything except healthy.

Still, though, it's fun to look at.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hitting J.D. Drew against lefties

When J.D. Drew sat out against tough lefties last season, Red Sox manager Terry Francona normally pointed out that he had to get at-bats for Rocco Baldelli and thus was doing so more for the benefit of Baldelli than for Drew.

We'll find out this season if he was telling the truth.

Baldelli is gone. Jeremy Hermida is the new fourth outfielder -- and Hermida is just as lefthanded as Drew is.

Francona still will have to find at-bats for Hermida. The former first-round draft pick still has enormous potential, and the Red Sox wouldn't have traded for him if they didn't think he had something to offer.

Those at-bats, though, will have to come mostly against righthanded pitchers. Hermida spelling Drew against lefties makes pretty much no sense if you look at their career splits:

Against lefties
Drew: .262/.366/.438 (.804)
Hermida: .237/.321/.376 (.697)

Against righties
Drew: .292/.407/.528 (.935)
Hermida: .274/.351/.441 (.792)

Drew, then, is going to have to hit against lefties more often than he has in his first three seasons with the Red Sox.

How will he do? Here's a look at his recent history against lefties:

2004 (167 at-bats): .287/.408/.521 (.929)
2005 (68 at-bats): .235/.416/.279 (.695)
2006 (119 at-bats): .244/.338/.378 (.716)
2007 (116 at-bats): .224/.285/.353 (.638)
2008 (94 at-bats): .284/.426/.500 (.926)
2009 (114 at-bats): .272/.381/.482 (.863)

It's hard to find any sort of consistent pattern. In some ways, the more at-bats he's had against lefties, the better -- except for 2007, a year that was miserable for him all the way around until his grand slam against Cleveland.

He has, for what it's worth, OPS'ed better than .850 against lefties in each of the last two seasons.

The above numbers do have to be taken with a grain of salt. Francona has often picked his spots to use Drew against lefties. He might not have that luxury this season.

For what it's worth, Drew is 2-for-10 (.200) with five strikeouts against CC Sabathia but 13-for-36 (.361) with 13 strikeouts against Andy Pettitte, having drawn one total walk against the Yankees' two best lefthanded pitchers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How long would you stick with Ortiz?

With spring training right around the corner -- and kudos to the Herald's Michael Silverman for the first on-the-scene story of the spring -- it's worth taking a look at what might be the question that determines the fate of the Red Sox season: Should David Ortiz endure another epic slump in April and May, how long should the Red Sox wait before pulling the plug?

The murmurs won't take long to grow in volume. You'd better believe there will be those ready to storm the streets should CC Sabathia strike him out in the first inning on Opening Day.

Ortiz, for those with short memories, didn't hit his first home run last season until May 20 and took a .188 batting average and .281 on-base percentage into play on June 6, the day on which he hit his first home run and seemed to get his feet under him for the first time. From then on, though, he hit .266 with a .360 on-base percentage and a .557 slugging percentage -- more than respectable, even for Big Papi.

Ortiz might just endure the same type of miserable slump this season as he did last season. Theo Epstein and Terry Francona then would have to make a difficult decision, especially with the potential-laden Jeremy Hermida waiting on the bench: Stick with Big Papi or cut him loose?

Odds are they'll stick with him -- and here are four reasons why:

Kent Hrbek, 1993
A beefy slugger in the Ortiz mold, Hrbek saw his numbers take their first severe downturn in 1992, his OPS falling from .834 to .765 and his home runs falling below 20 for the first time in almost 10 years. The year after that, Hrbek hit .238/.343/.446 in the first half, going into the All-Star break with a sub-.800 OPS for the first time since 1985.

In the second half, Hrbek posted a line of .246/.370/.487 -- including .295/.434/.689 in September.

Mo Vaughn, 2002
Vaughn missed the 2001 season after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his arm, and he got off to a lousy start after being traded to the Mets, hitting .200 with a .304 on-base percentage in the month of May. He hit for next to no power had a line of .248/.340/.399 at the All-Star break, a .739 OPS.

In the second half, Vaughn posted a line of .271/.360/.520 -- including .314/.442/.614 in September.

Carlos Delgado, 2008
Delgado hit just 24 home runs in 2007, his first season with fewer than 30 home runs and a sub-.500 slugging percentage in more than a decade. He then hit .198/.297/.323 in April and .229/.308/.476 in June, going into the All-Star break with a line of .248/.328/.455.

In the second half, Delgado posted a line of .303/.386/.606 -- including .340/.400/.649 in September.

David Ortiz, 2009
Oh, yeah, that. Some might dismiss the strong second half Ortiz enjoyed as a miracle not likely to happen again, but it's all part of the data set. The slugger went into the All-Star break wtih a line of .222/.317/.416 and had almost twice as many strikeouts (78) as walks (40).

In the second half, of course, Ortiz posted a line of .258/.350/.516, boosting his slugging percentage by 100 points. After hitting just one home run in April and May combined, he hit seven home runs apiece in June, July and August and six home runs in September.

What does it all mean? There's no good time to pull the plug on Ortiz unless he's completely and utterly overmatched at the plate. A year ago, he was OBP'ing .290 on April 30 and .284 on May 31 but still had a walk rate of better than 10 percent and still was seeing as many pitches as any player in the patient Red Sox lineup.

He's still a hitter that changes the way pitchers pitch. He's still a hitter who works counts and draws walks and keeps the line moving. He's still a hitter who forces opposing managers to use their lefty specialists.

There's almost no chance the Red Sox pick up their $12.5 million option they hold on Ortiz for 2011.

That, though, doesn't mean the Red Sox are going to give up on Ortiz midseason if he slumps again. There's too much history of sluggers breaking out of slumps in the second half for them just to cut bait and let him walk.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wins and losses and relief pitchers

We've made quite a bit of progress lately toward discounting the value of the "win" as a measuring stick for starting pitchers. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award in the National League last season with just 15 wins, the lowest win total ever by a Cy Young winner in a non-strike season.

Some still make the argument that the job of a starting pitcher is to win games. A pitcher is told to take the ball and bring home a 'W,' and if he hasn't done so, he hasn't done his job. If he loses a 2-1 game, after all, the opposing pitcher did his job better than he did, sort of, except if the two runs he allowed came on errors or on inherited runs scored after he'd left the game.

(No one ever points out that the job of a catcher or a first baseman is to go out and win games, too. No one ever points out that Joe Mauer had a worse win-loss record -- 74-64 -- than Jason Varitek -- 62-47 -- or uses that information to draw any conclusions. That would be absurd, right? But that's another argument for another day.)

Relief pitchers, though, present an entirely separate problem. Relievers earn wins if their team happens to take the lead for good while they're pitching. If they give up the lead in the top half of the inning before their team takes it back in the bottom half? That's ineffective pitching, but that's also deserving of a credited "win."

Maybe this just is a pet peeve. Maybe, though, it's time to stop referencing win-loss records for relievers in the context of anything except meaningless trivia.

You see it everywhere. Here, in a story about Ramon Ramirez filing for arbitration. Here, in a story about Hideki Okajima agreeing to a one-year contract. Here, in a story about Jonathan Papelbon -- a closer, for goodness sake. The first statistic mentioned about each of the above pitchers in each of the above stories is his win-loss record -- something that's about as relevant in evaluating his performance as the name of his fourth-grade teacher.

The winningest Red Sox reliever last season was Ramirez, who finished with the exact same number of wins (seven) as Clay Buchholz and Brad Penny. Okajima wasn't far behind (six), and neither was Manny Delcarmen (five).

What does that tell you? Let's look at a handful of the wins earned by Ramirez last season:

1. On April 17 against Baltimore, Ramirez got Javier Lopez out of a jam in the sixth inning and set down the side in the seventh before running into trouble with a 10-8 lead in the top of the eighth. Cesar Izturis lined to left, but Brian Roberts and Adam Jones followed with back-to-back singles -- putting the tying run on base. Hideki Okajima then relieved Ramirez and retired Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff to prevent the tying run from scoring.

2. On April 24 against New York, Ramirez pitched a scoreless inning -- just like Delcarmen, Lopez, Papelbon and Takashi Saito had before him. Ramirez even allowed two runners to reach before getting Melky Cabrera to ground into a double play. The difference? His happened to be the scoreless inning before Kevin Youkilis hit a walk-off home run.

3. On May 10 against Tampa Bay, Ramirez threw all of seven pitches, relieving Okajima in the eighth inning with the score tied and the bases empty and getting Ben Zobrist to ground to first. The Red Sox scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth, and Papelbon finished it out.

And so on.

Let's look at the leaderboard for wins among relievers in the American League last season:
1. Alfredo Aceves, 10 wins (3.54 ERA)
2. Craig Breslow, 8 wins (3.36 ERA)
3. Miguel Batista, 7 wins (4.04 ERA)
4. J.P. Howell, 7 wins (2.83 ERA)
5. Jason Frasor, 7 wins (2.50 ERA)
6. Jesse Crain, 7 wins (4.70 ERA)
7. Zach Miner, 7 wins (4.29 ERA)
8. Ramirez, 7 wins (2.84 ERA)

New York's Jonathan Albaladejo had five wins and a 5.24 ERA. Minnesota's Jon Rauch had five wins and a 1.72 ERA. There's even less correlation between wins and effective performance for relievers than for starters.

(ERA doesn't even tell the story as accurately as WHIP or opponents' OPS given how much inherited runners can skew the numbers. Again, though, that's an argument for another day.)

Maybe this is too harsh. Maybe it doesn't hurt anything to point out that a relief pitcher went 7-4 as long as his 2.84 ERA and 1.335 WHIP are included in the conversation.

On the other hand, saying, "He went 7-4 and had a 2.84 ERA" is just as relevant as saying, "He likes pepperoni pizza and had a 2.84 ERA." Actually, it's even less relevant: Whereas his 7-4 record has little to do with anything but outside factors, his affection for pepperoni pizza might actually affect his future performance.

(This writer, a fan of pepperoni pizza who currently is procrastinating on a trip to the gym, would know all about that.)

Though some are kicking and screaming along the way, many baseball fans and baseball writers now understand the way statistics like ERA and WHIP represent a far better measure of reliever performance than wins. The next step? Eliminating mention of reliever wins entirely.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ellsbury could be Theo's first arbitration case

Theo Epstein has never had to prepare an arbitration case. A one-year contract just shy of $10 million for Jonathan Papelbon this winter ensured Epstein's record would remain unblemished.

The next challenge for Epstein, though, is looming over the horizon. The next challenge is Jacoby Ellsbury.

Arbitration and the negotiations that usually precede it only get complicated when two sides disagree wildly on the relative value of a player.

Ellsbury is precisely the type of player with whom a panel of arbitrators might have a field day. Ellsbury is an athletic and speedy outfielder with advanced fielding metrics that make him out to be a lousy defensive outfielder. Ellsbury is the best base-stealer in the major leagues but posted an on-base percentage of just .355, fifth-best on his own team. Ellsbury has speed and gap power but hit just 37 combined doubles and triples last season, fewer than Dustin Pedroia and only one more than David Ortiz.

The thing Ellsbury does best -- stealing bases -- isn't something the Red Sox traditionally value. The thing with which Ellsbury has had the most trouble -- drawing walks and getting on base -- is something the Red Sox do value.

It'll be fascinating to see how a panel of arbitrators values the contributions of Ellsbury should the case get that far next winter. Epstein had a history of avoiding arbitration, but it might be difficult for him to find a middle ground with Ellsbury and agent Scott Boras should the two groups differ widely in their evaluation of his abilities.

While assorted clubhouse attendants and contracted movers pack up the truck on Friday for its trip to Fort Myers, Epstein likely will have an eye on the arbitration case of Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton. The two sides in that case were a mere $300,000 apart but couldn't come to an agreement before the deadline to trade figures came and went. The hearing is scheduled for Friday, and a verdict likely will come before Monday.

(Note: The Rays won the arbitration case.)

A win for Upton might not just mean an extra $300,000 in his pocket. A win for Upton might embolden similar players in the future -- Ellsbury being the first -- to go to a hearing and see if they can convince a panel that their athleticism is worth big money.

So far, it seems, players in the Ellsbury mold have been willing to sign long-term extensions to avoid their arbitration years in exchange for financial security. Carl Crawford signed a long-term deal with the Rays. Chone Figgins signed a deal with the Los Angeles Angels. Curtis Granderson signed a deal with the Detroit Tigers. Jose Reyes signed a deal with the New York Mets. Chris Young signed a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

All of those deals represented financial concessions in exchange for long-term security, just as the contracts of Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia with the Red Sox did.

There's a pretty good chance, though, that Boras will rebuff any efforts by the Red Sox at a long-term extension for less money and instead take his chances with a year-by-year approach the way Papelbon has. There's little precedent in arbitration for a player whose best asset is his ability to steal bases -- and Boras undoubtedly will dismiss comparisons to Crawford or Granderson as irrelevant given their context within long-term deals.

Just for the sake of argument, though, here's a look at the deals to which the above players agreed in lieu of going through salary arbitration:

Carl Crawford ($15.25 million over four years)
Arb Year 1: $2.5 million
Arb Year 2: $4 million
Arb Year 3: $5.25 million

Chone Figgins ($10.5 million over three years)
Super-Two: $2.25 million*
Arb Year 1: $3.5 million
Arb Year 2: $4.75 million
Arb Year 3: $5.775 million**
* Figgins had enough service time as a Super Two to qualify for four arbitration seasons rather than three
** Figgins signed a one-year deal to avoid a hearing

Curtis Granderson ($30.25 million over five years)
Arb Year 1: $3.5 million
Arb Year 2: $5.5 million
Arb Year 3: $8.25 million

Jose Reyes ($23.25 million over four years)
Arb Year 1: $2.5 million
Arb Year 2: $4 million
Arb Year 3: $5.75 million

Chris Young ($28 million over five years)
Arb Year 1: $3.25 million
Arb Year 2: $5 million
Arb Year 3: $7 million

(One side note: It's fascinating that Jonathan Papelbon earned $6.25 million in his first arbitration while each of the above players earned $3.5 million or less. Saves might be overvalued in the arbitration process, but stolen bases appear not to be.)

If Figgins, Granderson and Young all earned better than $3 million in their fourth major-league season -- a player doesn't qualify for arbitration unless he has at least three seasons of service time, with the exception of Super Twos -- you can bet Boras and Ellsbury will ask for at least $3 million in arbitration.

If Upton wins his case on Friday, you can bet Boras and Ellsbury will ask for close to $4 million in arbitration. Just look at the numbers for the two players last season:

Ellsbury: .301/.355/.415 with 70 stolen bases
Upton: .241/.313/.373 with 42 stolen bases

On top of that, Upton struck out 152 times while Ellsbury struck out 74 times. It's not difficult to make a case that Ellsbury should be paid more than Upton -- especially to an arbitrator who might or might not be well-versed in sabermetrics or advanced defensive statistics.

Should the panel of arbitrators rule in favor of Upton this weekend, Epstein might have to start bracing for the toughest arbitration fight of his career.

Postscript: They didn't. But an initial arbitration figure of $3.5 million is going to be far from out of line for Ellsbury.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Waiting for Zach Daeges

News item: "The Red Sox today announced that 20 players will attend the team’s Major League Spring Training camp as non-roster invitees."

Lars Anderson was invited to major-league camp with the Red Sox for the second straight year, his name among those released today by the team. The much-hyped Anderson shared a neighborhood in the far corner of the clubhouse last spring with two other prospects invited to their first major-league camp.

One was Josh Reddick, who jumped ahead of Anderson and didn't have to be invited to major-league camp because he's already part of the team's 40-man roster.

The other was a player who, like Anderson, again will participate in major-league camp despite not being part of the 40-man roster. The other was Zach Daeges.

The 26-year-old Daeges seems to have disappeared from the radar of the Red Sox. He's never been added to the 40-man roster. He was eligible for the Rule 5 draft back in December, in fact, but no team took a flier on him. Should the Red Sox not add him to the 40-man roster this season, he'll be eligible once again next December. classifies him as a Post-Prospect, a player who might have something to contribute but who probably isn't going to develop much farther.

He's become the forgotten man in the Red Sox farm system.

A look at the numbers, though, reveals that Daeges really can hit. Consider his progression through the minor leagues since he came out of Creighton University:

Age 22 (Single-A): .288/.402/.409 in 198 at-bats

Age 23 (Single-A): .330/.423/.579 in 515 at-bats

Age 24 (Double-A): .307/.412/.454 in 394 at-bats

So far, so good, right?

Age 25 (Triple-A): Injured

Daeges missed most of last season with an ankle injury suffered in spring training a year ago. He played in just nine games and was credited with just 29 at-bats for Triple-A Pawtucket before he shut it down. He thought most of the season that he'd sprained his ankle, but he told the Providence Journal back in October that he had an extra bone behind his ankle that had been knocked out of place. He had surgery in September to remove that bone.

In some respects, his window might already have closed. He's 26 years old -- two months older than Jon Lester, for the sake of context -- and doesn't yet have 30 at-bats at Triple-A. He can't play above-average defense at any position. He might not have much development left in him.

He has yet, however, to get on base at a clip less than .400 in the minor leagues. He might be 26 years old, but he's only entering his third full season in the minor leagues. A big season at Pawtucket might propel him back onto the radar.

Besides, if any organization understand the value of waiting for an on-base machine who takes a while to develop and break into the major leagues, it ought to be the Red Sox. Check out this career progression:

Age 24 (Double-A): .330/.487/.465 in 312 at-bats
Age 24 (Triple-A): .170/.295/.248 in 109 at-bats

Age 25 (Triple-A): .266/.350/.403 in 154 at-bats
Age 25 (Boston): .260/.367/.413 in 208 at-bats

Age 26 (Triple-A): .322/.459/.592 in 152 at-bats
Age 26 (Boston): .278/.400/405 in 79 at-bats

Age 27 (Boston): .279/.381/.429 in 569 at-bats

You know that career progression. That's Kevin Youkilis.

When Youkilis was 24 years old, he played the bulk of his games at Double-A -- just like Daeges. When Youkilis was 25 years old, he played the bulk of his games at Triple-A -- just like Daeges would have had he not gotten hurt. Youkilis then bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the major leagues for two seasons until he got his full-time break. Two seasons after that, at the age of 29, Youkilis blossomed into a star.

Developing so late is far from common. Most teams focus more on their 21-year-old prospects than their 26-year-old prospects, and with good reason. Youkilis' feat truly was remarkable.

But before Daeges missed an entire season due to injury, he'd shown himself to be an on-base machine in the minor leagues. If he can hit in Triple-A the way he's hit at every other stop along the way, he might yet follow the path Youkilis blazed for him.

It's not likely, but it's possible.

Verlander deal makes Lester a steal

Take a look at the American League leaders in ERA+ last season:

1. Zack Greinke, 205
2. Felix Hernandez, 174
3. Roy Halladay, 155
4. Jon Lester, 138
5. Justin Verlander, 133

With the news that the Detroit Tigers have locked up Verlander, three of those five pitchers now have signed contract extensions this winter -- and the other two signed extensions last winter. It's only natural to compare them. It's worth looking again at those five pitchers -- only this time in the context of their contracts:

1. Greinke, $38 million over four years ($9.5 million/year)
2. Hernandez, $78 million over five years ($15.6 million/year)
3. Halladay, $60 million over three years ($20 million/year)
4. Lester, $30 million over five years ($6 million/year)
5. Verlander, $80 million over five years ($16 million/year)

Any one of those stand out to you?

Lester last season ranked second in the American League in strikeout rate, fifth in ERA and sixth in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Among lefties in the American League, he's as good as it gets -- and that includes Cliff Lee, traded from Philadelphia to Seattle as part of the Halladay blockbuster.

The structure of the system, of course, had quite a bit to do with each of the above contracts. Halladay was set to hit free agency after the 2010 season, so his contract had to come close to his value on the open market.

Hernandez was arbitration-eligible last season for the first time and would have had two years left under team control before he got to the free-agent market. Same goes for Verlander. Greinke likewise had just two seasons of salary arbitration left when he signed his contract a year ago.

Lester wouldn't have been arbitration-eligible until this season, meaning his five-year contract really only bought out one or two years of free agency. His annual salaries ($3.75 million in 2010 and $5.75 million in 2011) don't exactly line up with what he'd earn in arbitration, but they're not too far off.

Still, though, in terms of raw production, the Red Sox might as well be stealing from Lester. If the lefty pitches anything like he has since he was pronounced cancer-free, he'll be a perennial Cy Young Award contender -- but he won't even earn $7 million in a season until 2012.

Maybe the Red Sox should buy him a pickup truck.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The value of Victor Martinez

With rumors on a contract extension for Joe Mauer flying around, it appears more and more likely that the Twins will sign their franchise catcher to a contract extension before he hits the free-agent market.

That would leave Victor Martinez as the best catcher available in an otherwise weak class of catchers whose contracts will expire after the 2010 season. For teams losing catchers in the near future -- and the Yankees and Red Sox both are in that category -- the switch-hitting Martinez could be a prize worth fighting over.

His last four seasons:
2006: .316/.391/.465 (.856)
2007: .301/.374/.505 (.879)
2008: .278/.337/.365 (.701)
2009: .303/.381/.480 (.861)

If you drop the one outlier, Martinez has demonstrated that he's a perennial threat to get on base at a clip of .375 or better and to slug .475 or better. He's a terrific hitter. The number of teams inquiring about his services will reflect that.

His value, though, will depend on the position he's playing. His value will drop precipitously if he's more of a first baseman than a catcher going forward.

Consider again the last four seasons:

2006: 127 starts at C/19 starts at 1B
2007: 118 starts at C/24 starts at 1B
2008: 54 starts at C/9 starts at 1B
2009: 82 starts at C/66 starts at 1B

A year after an elbow injury cost him most of June, July and August, Martinez saw a dramatic upturn in his time at first base. He made almost as many starts at first base in his two months in Boston (22) as he had any any full season to that point.

His 30th birthday is in his rear-view mirror. His days of catching 100-plus games probably are over.

Theo Epstein made clear at the start of the offseason that Martinez will assume the bulk of the catching duties next season. The older Martinez gets, though, the more time he'll spend at first base to diminish the injury risk while keeping his bat in the lineup. For the Red Sox, the development of Luis Exposito, Tim Federowicz and Mark Wagner makes Martinez even less likely to catch every day in 2011 and 2012.

Once the contract of David Ortiz expires, Martinez even could play 40 or 50 games as the designated hitter to minimize wear and tear on his body.

The less he plays catcher, though, the less valuable he becomes. His OPS last season (.856) ranked him second in the major leagues among catchers. Among all players, though, he ranked 47th -- behind, among others, Nick Swisher, Russell Branyan and Michael Cuddyer.

He's an elite hitter as a catcher. He's actually a pretty average hitter as a first baseman. Finding a good-hitting catcher is simply more difficult than finding a good-hitting first baseman -- and the Wins Above Replacement statistic makes that clear in each of Martinez's big seasons at the plate:

Martinez, C (.856 OPS): 4.9 WAR
Justin Morneau, 1B (.934 OPS): 4.4 WAR
Carlos Delgado, 1B (.909 OPS): 2.9 WAR
Todd Helton, 1B (.880 OPS): 2.4 WAR

Martinez, C (.879 OPS): 5.2 WAR
Prince Fielder, 1B (1.013 OPS): 5.1 WAR
Ryan Howard, 1B (.976 OPS): 4.3 WAR
Mark Teixeira, 1B (.963 OPS): 3.9 WAR

(2008 was something of a wasted season for Martinez. so we'll ignore that here.)

Martinez, C/1B (.861 OPS): 4.9 WAR
Ryan Howard, 1B (.931 OPS): 4.8 WAR
Kendry Morales, 1B (.924 OPS): 4.2 WAR
Justin Morneau, 1B (.878 OPS): 3.2 WAR

What does that tell you? Moving from catcher to first base, in terms of value, is about the same as a 100-point drop in OPS. A contract for a catcher with an OPS of .850 should look a lot different than a contract for a first baseman with an OPS of .850.

If Martinez is willing to play for $10 or $12 million a season, the Red Sox should lock him up for the next three or four years. If another team offers Martinez anything close to Mauer money -- or even anything close to Matt Holliday money -- the Red Sox probably will be better off letting him walk.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bullpen competition just gets deeper

It doesn't sound like Joe Nelson was in a position to be particularly choosy, but his phone interview with certainly revealed an interesting sentiment.

"For me," he said, "(Boston) just looked like the best place to have a legitimate fighting chance in spring training. ... They're not bringing in a whole bunch of guys. They have the two spots they're really looking at. They have internal depth but not as much experience, and, for me, I had multiple teams making multiple offers, and they just seemed like the best fit."

The goal for Nelson appears to be to win the last spot in the bullpen, the spot vacated by Takashi Saito this winter. Saito tended not to pitch in many high-profile situations, making just seven appearances in what could be defined as save situations and facing almost two-thirds of hitters in situations that could be defined as low-leverage.

Any major-league job, though, is a coveted major-league job. The Red Sox appear to have candidates lined up for either one or two bullpen spots, depending upon what happens with Tim Wakefield. Scott Atchison, Boof Bonser, Ramon A. Ramirez, Dustin Richardson and Brian Shouse all figure to be in the mix with Nelson for the final one or two spots in the bullpen.

If Wakefield finds his way onto the Opening Day roster, only one of the above pitchers will join him. The winner probably will be the one who carves the best niche for himself.

Nelson? The journeyman righty, who made three appearances for the Red Sox in 2004, compiled a 2.00 ERA in 54 innings pitched for the Florida Marlins in 2008. His ERA jumped to 4.02 with Tampa Bay last season as his walk rate jumped (from 3.7 to 6.0 per nine innings) and his strikeout rate dropped (from 10.8 to 8.0 per nine innings).

Interestingly, Nelson has a reverse split: He actually tends to fare better against lefthanded hitters than he does against righties. Lefties have OPS'ed .668 against him in his career as compared to .776 for righties, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio last season was almost twice as good against lefties (1.77) as it was against righties (0.93).

In that way, he's a little bit like Manny Delcarmen. Having too much in common with a reliever already on the staff probably isn't good for his chances, as the Red Sox already have a couple of pitchers on staff who historically have had success against lefties. That niche already has been taken.

Several other candidates for the last spot have their own niches:
* Bonser used to be a starter and could fill the Justin Masterson swingman role, throwing hard out of the bullpen but making a spot start or two;
* Ramirez is almost untouchable (.388 career OPS) against righties, though the small sample size and a relatively low strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.5) means that number might be unsustainable;
* Richardson is a young lefty who misses bats at a Daniel Bard-esque rate and could grow into a complement for Bard before too long;
* Shouse is a one-hitter lefty in the mold of Mike Myers.

Nelson doesn't really have the type of distinguishing characteristic -- other than his "Vulcan" changeup -- that makes him a strong candidate to win that last spot.

He's right, though: It's all still up in the air. He'll have a legitimate fighting chance -- and with the way relievers come and go, even starting the season in Pawtucket would give him a chance to get to the major leagues before too long.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Disconnect between Red Sox, fans all winter

Dustin Pedroia has talked with WEEI hosts every week all winter. Kevin Youkilis made a November appearance at the Lowell Spinners' alumni dinner. Tim Wakefield received an award for community service in New York. New acquisitions John Lackey and Jeremy Hermida joined Youkilis and several minor leaguers at the Boston baseball writers' dinner in mid-January. Reporters have caught up with Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz and Jonathan Papelbon by phone to find out how their offseasons have gone. There are ways for fans to keep tabs on their favorite players.

Nothing, though, beats seeing them in person. That's been virtually impossible for fans without special access or without the means to fork over a Benjamin Franklin or two. Even the "New Stars for Young Stars" autograph event required fans to purchase a $150 ticket for admission -- and the most prominent player to attend was middle reliever Manny Delcarmen.

(It is important to note that the proceeds from the above events went to charity. A good cause, however, doesn't make the price any less steep.)

The most prominent player to attend the Hot Stove, Cool Music roundtable with Peter Gammons and Theo Epstein was Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena. Not a single Red Sox player was there. Fans purchasing tickets to the Lowell Spinners' dinner even were advised that Youkilis would not be signing autographs.

Is that strange? Should it be?

The Red Sox enjoy one of the largest and most passionate fan bases in the major leagues. Fenway Park has sold out its 38,000-plus seats for more than 500 straight games. Red Sox fans flock to Camden Yards in Baltimore and Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay and the Rogers Centre in Toronto when they can't get tickets in Boston. Even National League stadiums are not immune.

During the season, though, it's not easy for fans to find ways to meet or collect autographs from their favorite players. Batting practice for the home team ends about 10 minutes after the Fenway Park gets open, and players rarely sign more than a couple of autographs on their way off the field. Spring training presents a great opportunity to meet players in an informal environment, but a March trip to Florida isn't exactly a cheap undertaking for a family.

Offseason events, then, seem to be the best chance for fans to get close to the team to which they devote so much time, energy and passion -- but those events start at $150 per person and don't even include the bulk of the players on the Red Sox roster.

Many other teams have the right idea. Here's a quick sampling of offseason events hosted by major-league teams this winter -- and commentary from the big names in attendance:

Baltimore ($10 for adults, $5 for kids): "Both Nick Markakis and Luke Scott used the winter to grow full-length beards, a style prohibited by the team's strict facial hair policy. Markakis took a lot of heat for his beard -- from peers and fans alike -- and said he was glad to be back in Baltimore."
Detroit ($14/$7): "I was here at about 9:15," pitcher Rick Porcello said, "and there was a line of fans wrapped around the corner."
Milwaukee ($15/$9): "All but three Brewers attended -- Craig Counsell already had a commitment for Sunday before he re-signed with the team, Todd Coffey was stuck in North Carolina by a snowstorm and Carlos Gomez has the flu."
Minnesota ($12/$6): "A line of fans stretched nearly 40 yards behind Joe Mauer, following the Twins catcher as he tried to weave his way through the crowd on the Metrodome field on Friday night."
Seattle ($10/$5): "We talked to some of the fans during our autograph session and they were thanking us for what we did last year as a team, how much it meant to them and how it brought a spark into getting into the Mariners," reliever Mark Lowe said. (New acquisition Chone Figgins highlighted the list of attendees.) "That was good to hear. You don't expect something like that to come out of a fan's mouth."
San Francisco (free): Scheduled for Saturday. Attendees to include Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval as well as former players Vida Blue and Will Clark and prospects Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey.
Tampa Bay (free admission, $20 for autographs) Scheduled for Feb. 20. From last year's event: "You can feel the energy in here," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, wearing a broad smile as he signed autographs. "You can tell it's different than the past. I hope we can take some of this momentum into the season."

The Atlanta Braves did not hold an on-site festival, but their winter caravan includes appearances by stars like Yunel Escobar, Tommy Hanson, Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Jones and Tim Hudson, in fact, will be at the Publix Supermarket in Marietta, Ga., at 4:30 p.m. today.

Not every team made it particularly easy for fans to meet their favorite players and collect a few autographs. The St. Louis Cardinals held a widely attended "Winter Warm-Up" program in early January that cost $40 for adults and $10 for kids. An extra autograph ticket was required for 22 of the players in attendance, including Matt Holliday ($100), Chris Carpenter ($50) and -- this is incredible -- Brad Penny ($10).

The Yankees, of course, hold no such event -- apart from taking the World Series trophy on a trip with team executives on a tour of Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong. The Mets and Phillies, two other Northeast teams with passionate fan bases, likewise do nothing of the kind in their home cities.

That tends to be the exception.

Instead of anything like the above events, the Red Sox put together the "Red Sox Road Trip" featuring, as its most prominent face, Wally the Green Monster. The point of the caravan into all six New England states was to distribute more than 6,000 ticket vouchers -- vouchers good for "the guaranteed purchase" of two regular-season tickets.

"Similar to last year's highly successful trip, this road trip will give us a chance to visit our loyal fans in their towns and say a special thank you for their unwavering commitment," Red Sox executive Sam Kennedy said in a press release announcing the event. "As we bring the warmth of baseball and thoughts of spring to our fans during these cold winter days, we hope that the ticket vouchers we deliver will enable them to join us at Fenway Park for what promises to be an exciting 2010 season."

That's right: The ticket vouchers are good for the purchase of two regular-season tickets. The tickets aren't free. The tickets aren't even discounted in any way. The vouchers simply allow the holder to purchase full-price tickets in advance of the general public to one regular-season game.

To recap: A Giants fan need only show up at AT&T Park on Saturday to get an autograph from Tim Lincecum -- free of charge. Should a Red Sox fan want to shake the hand of Jacoby Ellsbury or Dustin Pedroia, though, he or she had better book a trip down to Fort Myers, Fla., and hope he or she is in the right place when the right players make themselves available.

The best they can do otherwise is to see Wally the Green Monster and receive a piece of paper that entitles them to buy two tickets at full price. It's a wonder receipt of the voucher doesn't come with a contractual obligation to buy hot dogs and beer.

At least you can listen to Dustin Pedroia on WEEI, right?